Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Three Scandinavian Symphonies

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

This week’s Tuesday Blog presents a trio of symphonies by a pair of Scandinavian composers – one well-known, the other less.

Let’s start with the better known of the two composers. Jean Sibelius wrote seven symphonies; and his Third Symphony represents a turning point in Sibelius's symphonic output. His First and Second symphonies are grandiose Romantic and patriotic works. The Third, however, shows a distinct, almost Classical desire to contain the largest amount of musical material in the fewest possible melodic figures, harmonies, and durations. It is a good-natured, triumphal, and deceptively simple-sounding piece which hardly foreshadows the more austere complexity of his later symphonies

The Sibelius is flanked by a pair of symphonies by the early-romantic Swedish composer Franz Berwald. Berwald came from a family with four generations of musicians; his father, a violinist in the Stockholm Royal Opera Orchestra, taught Franz the violin from an early age; and in 1812, Berwald started playing the violin in the court orchestra and the opera, receiving lessons from Edouard du Puy, and also started composing:a violin concerto (not well-received at its premiere), some symphonies, operas never staged, even a Piano Concerto that was premiered nearly 40 years after his death by his grand-daughter in a student recital! Berwald's music was not recognised favourably in Sweden during his lifetime, even drawing hostile newspaper reviews, but fared a little better in Germany and Austria.

In 1911, Carl Nielsen wrote of Berwald, "Neither the media, money nor power can damage or benefit good Art. It will always find some simple, decent artists who forge ahead and produce and stand up for their works. In Sweden, you have the finest example of this: Berwald."

Ten years after Berwald's death, his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, "Naïve", was premiered ; this gap between composition and first performance was relatively short, however, compared to what befell the Symphony No. 2 in D major, "Capricieuse" and Symphony No. 3 in C major, "Singulière". Those two pieces were not premiered until 1914 and 1905, respectively.

Igor Markevitch recorded Berwald’s symphonies no 3 and 4 (along with a past share, Schubert’s 4th Symphony) with the Berlin Philharmonic in the mid-1950’s. You wouldn’t think of him in association with the music of Berwald, particularly in 1955, and particularly with the Berlin Philharmonic, but such was Markevitch’s gift that he could impose his will on just about any orchestra, in any music, and achieve stunning results. He simply has the Berlin Philharmonic playing its heart out, and the period mono sonics are extremely bold and vivid.

The Sibelius symphony I am sharing today was part of the first domestically available “complete” set of Sibelius symphonies in the UK. The project was handed to the then ex-pat conductor and composer Anthony Collins (1893-1963) who had been making a conducting and composition (film) career for himself in California. In the clean-limbed Third Symphony Collins puts across the controlled icy fever of the string writing and does so with great fervour.

Happy Listening!

Franz BERWALD (1796-1868)
Symphony no. 3 in C Major, "Sinfonie Singulière" (1845)
Symphony no. 4 in E flat Major, "Sinfonie Naïve" (1845)
Berliner Philharmoniker
Igor Markevitch, conducting
(Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, Dec 1955)
(Downloaded from LiberMusica)

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony no 3 in C major, op. 52
London Symphony Orchestra
Anthony Collins, conducting
(Kingsway Hall, London, May 1954)
(Downloaded from Public Domain Classic)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Project 366 - The Concert Experience

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

We are now past the half-way point in recommending the first 122 listener guides of our long-term Project 366. The guides so far allowed us to explore musical genres – going from intimate music all the way to full orchestral fare, with and without singing, culminating with stage works and the (dreaded) opera.

I like to think our first few chapters were part of a long arc that traversed the repertoire “with a definite purpose”. For the next chapters, I decided to propose more “disjointed” sets of listener guides, more along the lines of the way I’ve done things traditionally on ITYWLTMT and partner platforms, by exploring musical illustrations of themes.

Some of the themes I have planned for the next few months may be familiar; as I chose to touch-up some I already explored with you in past blog posts. Others – like the one that starts us off – will be new ones.

What is the Concert Experience?

Music is a performance art form, and as such it is meant as a performer communicating his (or her) interpretation of a piece of music to a listener. The listener, more often than not, is not a single person, but rather a group of people (an audience).

We call these performances recitals or concerts. They are often organized by musical societies, or music schools, or even promoted by individual performers or groups.

“Live” performances are one-of-a-kind, “you had to be there” events, sometimes recorded for posterity. Not so long ago, some performers would take a piece of music on the road and work and perfect  it in concert before going in studio to put it on record. Some performers – Glenn Gould comes to mind – believed that the recording studio was the one venue where they could truly achieve an ideal performance (either because it did not have a live audience, or because they could do-over parts as re-takes).

Conductor Leonard Bernstein, especially in the last decade or so of his career – took the opposite view, and nearly all his projects were “concert experiences”, caught on microphone and issued “as-is” on record. I suspect the reason for that was both practical (no need to make a special time-consuming trip to the studio when subscription concerts could be recorded and captured with great sound quality) and to share the spontaneity and electricity of the connection between performer and audience.
A number of the montages and playlists I am sharing in this chapter are “live” performances of orchestras and chamber groups. Some you will find are fine-tuned, others can be blemished, but all have in common the “spark” element of connection between performer and audience.

I also made a point of programming some “special events”, like the traditional New Year’s gala concert held yearly by the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Last Night of the Proms, a great tradition that – like Vienna’s tribute to the Waltz King – has its share of “expected favourtites”, in this case oozing with British patriotism.

You Had to Be There

A few of the listener guides I programmed are “recreations” of concerts that were held in the 20th century. A few months ago, we shared one such “recreation” – a ballet program from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that has grown infamous for the creation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. A few months earlier, in Vienna, another “Modern experiment” was held, featuring music from the so-called Second Viennese School (composers like Schoenberg, Webern and Berg) and caused its own brand of scandal. The program of that concert is one of the montages you will find in the below menu.

A couple of years earlier, Sergei Rachmaninov and Gustav Mahler shared the stage in New-York at a concert that premiered works by both composers, in what was to be Mahler’s final season in New-York.

To close the chapter, the recreation of an 1962 New-York Philharmonic concert that featured two artists we discussed earlier – MM. Gould and Bernstein - and a notable performance of Johannes Brahmsfirst Piano Concerto that caused quite a stir.

Enjoy the Concert Experience through these Listener Guides

Listener Guide #68 – “New Year in Vienna 1987”. In one of his earliest broadcasts as host of this yearly event, Walter Cronkite initiates American viewers in the backstories and traditions of 19th century Vienna and the yearly New Year concert. The legendary Herbert von Karajan conducts. (Twelve Days of Blogging #9 - 1 Jan 2012)

Listener Guide #69 – “The Montreal Symphony on Radio Canada International”. Henri Bergeron hosts this 1986 subscription concert broadcast of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, guest conducted by Gunther Herbig and featuring violin soloist Salvatore Accardo (Once Upon the Internet #46 - 12 Apr 2016)

Listener Guides #70 & 71 – “Last Night of the Proms 2004”. Alan Titchmarsh hosts this BBC broadcast of the gala concert that concluded the 2004 BBC Proms season. As is the tradition, the concert has a “light classics” concert section, followed by a “more predictable” line-up of British favouites. Leonard Slatkin conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra. (Tuesday Blog - 6 Sep 2016)

Listener Guide #72 – “TDMH 16 Jan 1910”. This montage re-creates the program conducted by Gustav Mahler at Carnegie Hall, which featured Sergei Rachmaninov performing his “new” Piano Concerto no. 3. (ITYWLTMT #237 – 13 Jan 2017)

Listener Guide #73 – “Skandalkonzert”. This montage re-creates the program heard at Vienna’s Musikverein on March 31, 1913, featuring works from the Second Viennese School. Works by Berg, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and Gustav Mahler. (ITYWLTMT #235 - 25 Nov, 2016)

Listener Guide #74 – “Amateur Night at Harvard”. Organized by students of the Faculty of Medical Sciences, a quartet of amateur musicians perform works by Dvorak and Ravel. (Once Upon the Internet #47 - 7 June 2016)

Listener Guide #75 – “The Luna Nova Ensemble”. A musical group specializing in contemporary music, the Luna Nova ensemble is heard in tracks from their public performances, most notably a performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. (Tuesday Blog - 13 Sep 2011 )

Listener Guide #76 – “TDMH 6 April 1962”. “Don’t be Afraid, Mr. Gould is Here”, in a recreation of the Carnegie Hall concert of April 6th, 1962, including the performance as caught in a live broadcast, preceded by the infamous “disclaimer” by Leonard Bernstein. (ITYWLTMT Montage #50 - 6 April 2012)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Mahler in New-York

No. 237 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages is this week's Friday Blog and Podcast. Mobile followers can listen to the montage on our Pod-O-Matic Channel, and desktop users can simply use the embedded player found on this page.


This week’s Blog and Podcast re-visits a topic we first discussed on the Tuesday Blog back in 2012 and feeds this month’s Project 366 chapter on The Concert Experience.

Let me shamelessly borrow from the original post, with significant updates about the performances – and performers – I retained this time.

Off and on, New-York has had more than one professional symphony orchestra holding subscription concerts - Sergey Rachmaninov appeared as soloist in the world premiere of his Third Piano Concerto on November 28, 1909, which took place at the New Theater in New York City. Walter Damrosch was conducting the Symphony Society of New York (From the archives of the New-York Philharmonic)

In a memorable evening at Carnegie Hall on 16 January 1910, Rachmaninov gives the third performance of his Piano Concerto no.3, with the New York Philharmonic under its new music director, Gustav Mahler.

Rachmaninov deemed Mahler “the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with (Arthur) Nikisch. He touched my composer’s heart straight away by devoting himself to my Concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important—an attitude which is unfortunately rare amongst conductors.”
The New York Herald reported the following day:

The impression made at the earlier performances of the essential dignity and beauty of the music and the composer’s playing was deepened, and the audience was quite as enthusiastic in its expression of appreciation as at the performance at The New Theater on 28 November last and at the Carnegie Hall two days later. […] The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.

The Symphony and Philharmonic Societies merged under the Philharmonic banner in 1928, and remained the single main professional orchestra in the area until 1937, when David Sarnoff formed the NBC Symphony Orchestra for Arturo Toscanini to conduct as the network’s flagship orchestra. Although its initial home was Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the orchestra regularly held court at Carnegie Hall, where the acoustics (and space) were better suited for public broadcasts.

The NBC Symphony was disbanded after Toscanini’s retirement in 1954 but continued to record and perform for another decade or so as the Symphony of the Air notably under Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski.

Upon his return from winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, American pianist Van Cliburn appeared in a Carnegie Hall concert with the Symphony of the Air, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (who had led the Moscow Philharmonic in the prize-winning performances in Moscow). The performance of the Rachmaninov 3rd at this concert was subsequently released by RCA Victor on LP and is one of the four works I retained in the re-creation of the Mahler/Rachmaninov concert of January 1910.

Keeping to the original Philharmonic program, the opening work was a Mahler “original”, as the Philharmonic also premiered an orchestration by Mahler of selections of J. S. Bach’s 2nd and 3rd Suites for Orchestra. Compared to the hyper-romantic arrangements of Bach organ music turned out in the first few decades of the twentieth century (by the likes of Schoenberg, Elgar, and Stokowski) Mahler's version of music from Bach suites is surprising forward-looking and restrained.

Wilhelm Mengelberg was principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam forsome 50 years (1895 - 1945). Mengelberg met and befriended Gustav Mahler in 1902, and invited Mahler to conduct his Third Symphony in Amsterdam in 1903, and on 23 October 1904 Mahler led the orchestra in his Fourth Symphony twice in one concert, with no other work on the program. Mahler edited some of his symphonies while rehearsing them with the Orchestra, making them sound better for the acoustics of the Concertgebouw. This is perhaps one reason that this concert hall and its orchestra are renowned for their Mahler tradition. The Mahler Suite after Bach is performed today by the Concertgebouw orchestra under Riccardo Chailly.

The second half of the concert features performances of music from operas familiar to New-York audiences and within the Mahler repertoire; the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an opera Mahler first conducted in his earliest assignment at the Hamburg Stadttheater and at his New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera on 1 January 1908 and Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride was one of the last operas Mahler conducted during his short stint with the Metropolitan Opera - on 19 February 1909.

The “end” of the NBC Symphony/Symphony of the Air came when in 1962 Stokowski founded a new orchestra, the American Symphony Orchestra whose mission is to demystify orchestral music and make it accessible and affordable for all audiences. Stokowski was 80 years old when he founded the orchestra and served as music director together with assistant Amos Meller until May 1972 when, at the age of 90, he returned to England. Today, Leon Botstein is the orchestra's music director and principal conductor. They perform regularly at Carnegie Hall and Symphony Space in New York City, and are also the resident orchestra at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson. The Wagner is performed by Bolstein and the American Symphony in today’s montage.

The concluding piece of the montage, the overture to Smetana’s opera, is taken from a broadcast recording by the NBC Symphony under Mahler’s long-time collaborator, Bruno Walter.

I think you will love this music too!

Monday, January 9, 2017

La Voix Humaine

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

As I am sure many of you were, I was saddened to read about the passing of French conductor Georges Prêtre a few days ago. In the obituary prepared by the Guardian, they write that

[At the end of Prêtre’s tenure (1955–1959)] at the Opéra-Comique, in 1959, he conducted the premiere of [FrancisPoulenc’s] phone conversation opera, La Voix Humaine. He believed that the French did not appreciate their own composers enough, and worked tirelessly to promote French music at home and abroad, and on disc. Poulenc found in Prêtre a conductor whom he could trust, and the recordings that emerged from this friendship, notably La Voix Humaine with Denise Duval […] have become classics: Prêtre even expressed irritation that Poulenc would never offer advice at rehearsal, instead contenting himself, after the recording was over, with sharing a bottle of the best champagne.
To further justify today’s post, we should point out that Miss Duval herself passed away at age 94 in January 2016, making it even more pertinent to program a look at Poulenc’s “one-woman opera.

Duval, who studied drama and took vocal classes at the Bordeaux conservatory, made her debut at the Opéra-Comique in 1947 (Madame Butterfly) The same year she was discovered by Poulenc, and worked closely with him for the rest of his life, credited with creating three roles in his three operas (Thérèse in Les mamelles de Tirésias, Blanche de la Force in Dialogues des Carmélites and the only character (“Elle”) in La voix humaine). Her Opera News obituary continues on the latter role:

In 1959, she [successfully premiered Elle] in the Jean Cocteau monodrama couture-tailored to her talents by Poulenc […] In 1960, she repeated that triumph for the opera’s British debut (at Edinburgh, with Glyndebourne forces) and its American premiere, as half of an American Opera Society double bill with Mamelles at Carnegie Hall. The latter stirred the Times’s Howard Taubman to write, ‘It is difficult to imagine a more convincing and more affecting performance than Miss Duval’s.’
As stated earlier, La voix is one character opera, thus imposing on the single vocalist the complete burden of conveying the 45-minute drama on her own – no small feat! Sopranos from France, other continental European countries, the UK and the US have performed the solo role, and several of them, beginning with Duval, have recorded it. A quick survey of YouTube provides easily a half-dozen or so “complete:” stage performances of the opera, including an incomplete copy of a 1970 film (by director Dominique Delouche) in which Duval gives a riveting lip-synched performance to her own classic recording of a decade earlier. “I’m proud that my name will always be connected with [Poulenc’s],” she once said. The man who called her “my Duval” would surely have returned the compliment.

La Voix was originally a one-woman play by Jean Cocteau – the same Cocteau who befriended the cohort of French modern composers known today as Les Six, of whom Poulenc was a member in good standing. Cocteau finished writing his play in 1928, and the monodrama was premiered two years later. Cocteau sought to reduce his drama to the "simplest of forms"; the one-act play involves a single character in a single room with a telephone. The character—an anonymous woman referred to only as "Elle" - has been abandoned by her lover and reveals that she has attempted to commit suicide. The play consists of her last conversation with her lover.

Following the success of Dialogues, Hervé Dugardin, the Paris director of Ricordi Publishers, suggested that Poulenc set Cocteau's monodrama to music, with Maria Callas as the lone artist (Callas would, in time, take on the role). Poulenc, however, wrote the opera specifically for Denise Duval; Poulenc's close work with Duval helped his compositional process because he "knew the details of the soprano's stormy love life, and this helped to cultivate a sense of specificity in the opera." Poulenc also identified with Elle's situation, which allowed him to "pour immense anguish into his opera… Like her he abused sleeping pills, tranquilizers and anti-depressants." He thus immersed himself in a deeply personal project with which he easily connected.
Cocteau also worked closely with Poulenc in preparation for the opera's premiere (6 February 1959), providing the stage direction, set design and costumes. The opera met immediate success and went on to be performed at La Scala in Milan, as well as other opera houses around Europe and America.

The libretto is full of tension – the phone connection is constantly interrupted - as Elle reveals the depth of her despair. The libretto leaves Elle’s ultimate fate unresolved – or is it? “J'ai le fil autour de mon cou/ J'ai ta voix autour de mon cou.” (I have the cord around my neck/I have your voice around my neck). Does she strangle herself at the end? Every stage director seems to approach the closing bars differently.

Francis POULENC (1899 –1963)
La voix humaine, FP 171
Monodrama in one-act, French libretto by Jean Cocteau after his play of the same name
Denise Duval, soprano
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique
Georges Prêtre, conducting

French libretto - http://kareol.es/obras/lavozhumana/acto1.htm
(Libretto from original LP – https://www.discogs.com/release/9217...Humaine/images)